Iran Warns Against 'Divisive Schemes' in Afghanistan as ISIS Wages War Across Ethnic Lines

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has shared with Newsweek a warning against plots to tear Afghanistan apart as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) claimed yet another attack against the country's Shiite Muslim community using attackers from different ethnic groups.

ISIS' Khorasan affiliate, known as ISIS-K, claimed responsibility on Friday for a suicide bombing that killed more than 50 worshippers at a Shiite Muslim mosque in the city of Kandahar. The attackers were identified as Anas al-Khorasani and Abu Ali al-Balochi, likely monickers to connect the two historical regions of Khorasan and Balochistan comprising parts Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

The operation came a week after the jihadis targeted another gathering of Shiite Muslims, most of whom hail from Afghanistan's Hazara community, in the city of Kunduz, killing up to 100 people and injuring scores more. That attacker then was identified by ISIS-K as Mohammed al-Uyghuri, signaling a connection to Central Asia's Uyghur minority.

A week earlier, a Sunni Muslim mosque was attacked in the capital Kabul and, as Afghanistan's now ruling Taliban attempts to rein in the chaos, neighboring Iran, the world's top Shiite Muslim power, has issued a message blaming takifiris, those who consider other forms of Islam apostates and will not tolerate their very existence.

"Once again the enemies of Islam pulled the strings of the criminal Takfiri terrorists and spilled the blood of a number of the oppressed people of Afghanistan during Friday prayers," the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek.

The ministry said it "strongly condemns the terrorist attack by the Takfiris at the Fatemieh Mosque in Kandahar which martyred and wounded a large number of worshippers." The ministry also "offers condolences to the honorable families of the martyrs and the dear people of Afghanistan and it prays for patience and divine reward for the bereaved families and fast recovery for those injured in this inhumane crime."

And Tehran expressed a warning as well, invoking the ummah, or the global family of Muslims.

"The Foreign Ministry also warns of plots by the Islamic ummah's enemies to cause divisions and stresses the need for unity and solidarity among Shias and Sunnis and for rejection of violence and extremism in the name of Islam," the ministry said.

Iranian officials also called for fortifying the defenses of holy sites in the wake of the turmoil, which they believe Afghans would ultimately overcome.

"This heart-wrenching incident and the past tragic events including the terrorist attack in Konduz highlight more than ever before the need for beefing up security and boosting protection of Shia and Sunni worshiping places and other gatherings in Afghanistan," the Iranian Foreign Ministry added. "The Islamic Republic of Iran is confident that our Muslim brothers and sisters in Afghanistan will foil the divisive schemes of their enemies through solidarity, co-thinking and joint efforts."

ISIS, Khorasan, attack, Kandahar, mosque
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said it "strongly condemns" a terror attack at a mosque in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Above, ISIS' Amaq News Agency claims responsibility for a deadly attack on October 15, 2021. Amaq News Agency

The governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have all struggled for ages with various insurgent groups, many of which have mobilized across sectarian lines.

Lucas Webber, a researcher specializing in non-state actors and militant organizations who serves as editor for the Militant Wire outlet, said the attribution of the last two attacks by ISIS was likely no coincidence.

"It seems quite deliberate for the Islamic State to signal how militants of various ethnic backgrounds are carrying out these attacks," Webber told Newsweek. "It serves, in part, as a way to show how the Islamic State organization and ideology can transcend ethnicity—to some extent at least."

Unlike the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which were born out of the U.S.- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen resistance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, ISIS was formed from Al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate in the wake of the U.S. invasion that toppled the country's longtime leader, Saddam Hussein, in 2003. Two years earlier, the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan to take on a Taliban-led government that sheltered Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. military would remain in the country for two decades, ultimately leaving at the end of August after a peace deal struck by the previous administration led by President Donald Trump in February of last year. As President Joe Biden wrapped up the withdrawal, allied Afghan security forces quickly collapsed nationwide and ultimately gave way to the Taliban's entry into Kabul, where the reincarnation of their Islamic Emirate was announced last month.

The Taliban, comprised largely of Pashtuns, has vowed to protect peoples of all backgrounds in Afghanistan, which is home to an array of other smaller ethnic populations including Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.

Among the groups, Hazaras are the only ones who predominantly adhere to the Shiite branch of Islam, which ISIS ultraconservatives liken to apostasy in their hardline brand of Sunni Islam. Many Hazaras have also accused the Taliban of oppression and a large number have fled over past decades to neighboring Iran.

In order to counter ISIS' spread in Iraq and Syria, Iran has mobilized a number of Shiite Muslim groups including a largely Hazara organization known as the Fatemiyoun Division, which remains active in Syria to this day.

The Fatemiyoun on Friday condemned the recent spate of ISIS attacks in Afghanistan, calling it "a brutal terrorist attack that is the result of Salafi-Takfiri thinking."

Kamran Bokhari, Director of Analytical Development at the Washington-based Newlines Institute for Strategy, told Newsweek that, while ISIS' recruiting of separatist groups are certain to irk a number of regional powers, especially preying on China's concerns toward Uyghur militias, "the people who are going to be most provoked are the Iranians."

He said that ISIS is "engaged in a deliberate information operation campaign to really get under the skin of the Iranians." And the idea, he argued, was "to trap the Taliban" in a situation in which they either go against an even more fundamentalist Sunni Muslim contingent, risking potential defections among their own ranks, or hazard the potential for international intervention after working so hard to build up clout abroad.

Iran has expressed respect for Afghanistan's sovereignty, along with hope the Taliban itself can solve the problem. The Fatemiyoun, for its part, has so far rejected any notion of getting involved in the country that's native to many of its fighters.

But if the killing of Shiites continues, "where does that leave the Iranians?" Bokhari asked.

"They're going to try to activate the militias," Bokhari said, referencing Iran's strategy in Syria to "defend the shrines." And "to protect Shiites here," Bokhari added, citing a potential Iranian approach to Afghanistan, "because nobody is protecting them."

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Above, Afghan men inspect the damages inside a Shiite Muslim mosque in Kandahar on October 15, after a suicide bomb attack during Friday prayers that killed up to 50 people and dozens more. ISIS claimed the attack as part of a deadly campaign that threatens to undermine the Taliban's newly established government in Afghanistan. JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images